Words by Adolf Alzuphar
It has been over 30 years since hip-hop exploded into cultural significance in Haiti. It’s always hard to figure out exactly why a new musical genre captivates a significant portion of a population but Rap Kreyol has. Today, Rap Kreyol, Haitian rap, is by far the most listened to Haitian music among Haitian youth.
For several years, thanks to the group King Posse and its star rapper, the late Black Alex, it even took over Haitian carnival. Today it remains a lively art, even as lyrical content has declined when compared to early Rap Kreyol. And no Haitian rapper today is as great as the founder of the genre, Master Dji. Master Dji has left behind songs and albums that are showcase this incredible Haitian evolution of Jamaican dancehall, Hip Hop and Haiti’s own culture at its best.
Master Dji was born George Lys Herard in 1961 to a family with a very comfortable financial situation in one of the poorest countries in the world. His father was the owner of a radio station, Radio Port-au-Prince. After attending an all-boys Catholic school, he went on to university in France, where he found himself working for the mythical Radio Nova. After some time, he went back to Haiti, where he continued his radio career. Dubbing himself Master Dji, Herard released “Vakans” with singer Sylvie D’Art in 1982. Issued just three years after the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” it was the very first Haitian rap song. “Vakans,” meaning vacation in kreyol, was not only influenced by hip-hop and disco, but also by Jamaican dancehall and reggae. His subsequent songs and albums, including the classic Haiti Rap & Ragga, available on Spotify, would find their own Haitian rap rhythm, setting the tempo for the dominant style of rap kreyol that followed.
Some of his music would become extremely political. In 1986, the Dictator Jean Claude Duvalier was overthrown. Master Dji played his part in the overthrow of this repressive regime with the song “Sispann,” a massive hit. He would go on to win an RFI prize in France for his album Politik Pa M’. The album, which translates to “My Politics” is considered a masterpiece, full of major Haitian hits.
Herard died young in 1994, at just 33 years old, from an illness. Today, his songs are considered undisputed classics of what the Haitian youth consider to be their own music. It is a music that is not at the same level as it began but nonetheless, just as reggae began its life as Jamaican R&B, creatively expresses the Haitian spirit by rooting itself in life outside of Haiti as much as in life inside of Haiti.